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Bach's Goldberg Variations, and all of its loopholes, keep it indestructible / WQXR

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The Goldberg Variations is a masterpiece without consensus - in terms of what it is, who should play it and how it should be heard.

There are no hidden enigmas, and next to no questions about what J.S. Bach actually put on paper. The essence of the Goldberg Variations is right there in front of you. So much is there, but so much is not, creating all kinds of loopholes. Bach asks that every passage be played twice. Was he serious? The answer can make the difference between 40 and 80 minutes in duration. Given the variety of instruments that play it - most anything with a keyboard, plus classical guitar, string trio, and, most curiously of all, prepared piano - the sound of the piece can vary radically from one performance to the next. How much does that matter? How well does the piece survive from one instrument to the next? 

It's getting much love these days - with high-profile recordings on piano by Lang Lang (Deutsche Grammophon) and Pavel Kolesnikov (Hyperion), plus a new version on harp by Parker Ramsay (King's College Cambridge) - and of course each performance speaks differently. Lang Lang treats it almost like a thoughtfully-colored Impressionistic painting. The unabashedly pianistic Igor Levit creates a grand, full-sonority edifice. Kolesnikov's restrained palette and music-box rhythm gives the opening passage a once-upon-a-time quality, in a performance that seems to be whispering in your ear, and in moments of more playful counterpoint, tickling it. Simone Dinnerstein has cornered the market for introspection in Bach: Her Goldberg recording creates parallels between late Bach and late Schubert. Rosalyn Tureck gives the Goldberg Variations the solemnity of religious ritual - second only to the St. Matthew Passion. The only way to kill the Goldberg Variations is through radical improvisation, along the lines of Dan Tepfer's take on the Sunnyside label. First, he shoves Bach into the back seat … and then out the door.